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Food Aid

Guatemala grapples with child malnutrition

Guatemala has one of the world’s highest levels of chronic malnutrition in the world. The government has responded with an ambitious zero-hunger strategy but entrenched inequality and poverty are complicating the fight.

Guatemala's Vice President, Roxana Baldetti knows how to work a crowd. On a recent visit to Pamumus, a village in the mountains outside Guatemala City, Baldetti asked residents what color they see when they look towards the fields and hills around their village. “Green!” the crowd shouted. “Yes, we are a green country,” Baldetti said. “So there is no reason why children should go to bed on an empty stomach.”

But hunger remains an enduring problem here. Pamumus is home to 112 children between the ages of 1 and 4, and 67 of them are suffering from chronic malnutrition. The problem extends far beyond Pamumus. Almost one in every two Guatemalan children under five years of age suffers from chronic malnutrition.

Most of the residents of Pamumus are smallholder farmers, growing corn, wheat, beans and vegetables. But the seeming agricultural abundance doesn’t pay. They earn just over 2.50 euros ($3.42) a day. That simply isn’t enough to provide their families with a diverse diet, Arnulfo Alvarez, a local doctor, said.

A woman holds a child in a market

Almost one in every two children in Guatemala under the age of five suffer from malnutrition

“The fundamental diet here is basically corn and coffee. Maybe once, twice or three times a week beans,” Alvarez told DW. “There is a shortage of proteins and vitamins and a shortage of some minerals that are fundamental in the development of a child's growth, especially in the first five years of its life.”

Zero-hunger strategy

It’s a pressing challenge and one that has now climbed to the top of the government’s agenda. Last year, the administration led by President Otto Pérez Molinait signed a Zero Hunger Pact that aims to cut chronic malnutrition levels by 10 percent by the end of 2015. Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s recent visit to Pamumus was meant to reaffirm the government's commitment to combat hunger.

The government has begun providing vitamins and food supplements, which doctors like Arnulfo Alvarez and his staff hand out to needy children. The program also includes providing better seeds to farmers and campaigns promoting breastfeeding and general hygiene. The five-year program has a budget of around 40 million euros.

Guatemala’s fight against malnutrition is being boosted by the European Union. On a recent visit to Guatemala, the European Commissioner for Development, Andris Piebalgs, said the EU would continue giving aid to Guatemala and three other Central American countries to overcome malnutrition and other challenges - a total of 775 million euros over the next seven years. 186 million euros is expected to go to Guatemala, pending approval by the European Parliament and the EU Council.

European Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs meets Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti

EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs meets Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti

Piebalgs said development aid remains an important tool to reduce malnutrition. Referring to the debate on whether developing countries benefit more from trade or aid, Piebalgs said both are needed.

Tackling inequality the key

Adrián Zapata, Guatemala’s Presidential Commissioner for Rural Development, said hunger can only be tackled with a more structural solution – one that goes beyond food and vitamin handouts.

“In a country where generalized poverty with profound inequality come together in a context of exclusion, the effect is dramatic. This is not something which was caused by the previous government, or the ones before that," Zapata said. "This is a product of a long historic process.”

Guatemala has high levels of inequality both in terms of income and land distribution. The poor are predominantly indigenous and live in rural areas. The country has one of the highest levels of land concentration, where just 2.5 percent of landowners control 65 percent of arable land.

About half of the country’s population is indigenous and for years, they suffered persecution and marginalization. During the 36-year civil war that ended in 1996, 80 percent of the casualties were indigenous Guatemalans. Today, they still continue to face discrimination. And it is among the indigenous Mayan people that malnutrition rates can be as high as 90 percent.

Tall promises?

The Zero Hunger Pact acknowledges that malnutrition is mostly a problem in rural areas. But not all Guatemalans believe the government is sticking to the promises made in the agreement.

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Some indigenous Mayans accuse the government of using them to entice aid money

Alberto Panjoj Sicajau is an indigenous representative in the city of Solola, about 60 kilometers east of Pamamus. Solola is one of the few places in the country to have a municipality with indigenous representatives. It’s called the indigenous municipality.

But the leaders of the indigenous municipality here say they have not seen any of the promised international aid arrive in their community.

“The strategy of the government is: they use the image of the indigenous population, they use the poverty, so they can ask other countries for help”, Alberto Panjoj Sicajau said. “But this help does not get to the indigenous people. They use the money for other things.”

For now, the government says it has decided to provide targeted aid to a few select municipalities. It will probably be some time before a nutritious and diverse diet becomes a reality for every Guatemalan.

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